May 5, 2010
By Jacob Thorpe
If you've been fortunate enough to find yourself at a track meet this season, you've noticed that among the stoic, stony-faced sprinters warming up before their race, there is an enigma.
Bounding along with a smile, the enigma playfully dances to the sounds coming from his ear buds. But make no mistake: When that starting gun goes off, this enigma is all business, because James Alaka didn't come to the United States to lose.
Alaka, a freshman, grew up in London, England. He has made the most of his first year in the states, running through the Pac-10 without abandon and leaving a trail of American sprinters eating his English dust.
Alaka is unmistakable, due to his easy-going nature and pre-race dance routine. His gentle demeanor and light accent make him seem impossibly gentle. But once it's time to race, Alaka becomes ruthless.
"He came over extremely hungry and driven," sprint coach Raul Sheen said. "He came over with the intention of proving himself and running very fast. He's freakishly talented."
Alaka ranks No. 5 all-time at Washington in the 100-meter dash with a 10.32 and No. 8 in the 200 with a 20.94.
He wasn't recruited to Washington in the traditional way. Despite his prep successes, it was Alaka courting Washington in the beginning.
"It's always a little different recruiting international students," Sheen said. "To be honest, James sought us out. He sent me an e-mail saying he was interested in coming to the UW. I called his coach and found some video on the Internet. I could tell he was serious."
Alaka chose Washington from a list of schools, including Iowa, UC-Irvine and Western Kentucky. However, once Washington reciprocated his interest, Alaka knew where he was going.
"Once I set my mind on UW, the rest of [the schools] kind of got kicked to the wayside," Alaka said. "I chose UW because out of all the schools that were looking at me, [the UW] seemed the most interested in my academic, as well as athletic progression."
Although the States were a much different place from his home, Alaka was open to change, in large part due to Sheen.
"Coach Sheen just seemed really genuine, and I liked that," Alaka said. "It's different, very different from England, but at the same time, it's a great place to be."
Different as it may seem, Alaka is no stranger to the United States, or even to the West Coast. Growing up, Alaka's family would vacation in Florida, and he came to Los Angeles to train.
"I used to come to Los Angeles to train in the hot weather, which is kind of hard to find in London," Alaka explained. "My coach in London used to fly over with me and a couple of other guys in a group, and we would just do our thing."
Now, Alaka has competed in meets up and down the West Coast and has formed his own impressions about the places he's seen that Husky fans are sure to agree with.
"Sacramento was cool, and so was Berkeley," Alaka said. "Eugene wasn't so cool, and Pullman last week was possibly even worse than Eugene."
While Alaka may be visiting these places for the first time, the significance of these locales in the world of college athletics is not lost on him. As a child, he was a fan of U.S. college football and knows all about the traditional rivalries and hatreds of Pac-10 sports.
"Coming over here, the team atmosphere makes you realize how important it is to beat the rivals," Alaka said. "When we went to the Pepsi invitational, it was more than just racing a couple of teams; we were racing some other teams, and Oregon. I set a personal record at that meet because I knew that, regardless of who I beat, I had to beat Oregon."
That fact was never more evident than last week at cross-state-rival school WSU.
"It was the same last week at the dual meet," Alaka said. "We lost overall as a team, and I was like, `Why are we losing to the Cougs, nobody loses to the Cougs ... they're the Cougs.'"
He plans to return to England this summer to see his mom and compete in the European Championships but says he may spend future summers in the United States.
Although he's reluctant to think that far ahead, don't think for a second that Alaka has missed the coincidence that the 2012 Olympics will be held in London, his hometown, right as he enters his prime.
"Every athlete's dream is to run in the Olympics," Alaka said. "However, the older you get, the more you realize that you can't get too far ahead of yourself. I'm always going to be thinking that I would love to run in the Olympics, but I have goals I have to meet first ... like winning a Pac-10 championship."
Alaka knows that to be the best, he must race against the best. That simple adage best explains why he chose to leave home and come to the United States in the first place.
"The level of competition over here helps everyone," Alaka said. "When you're running against guys that run world-class times every week, you kind of have to raise your game or be left by the wayside. In England, the big names and fast guys don't like to race in England very much, and they all go abroad, whereas, every single race over here, I've faced very fast people."
With Alaka leaving many of those "very fast people" in his dust, they probably don't appreciate the competition quite as much as he does.